Album Reviews

Shackleton – The Drawbar Organ / Music For The Quiet Hour

(Woe To The Septic Heart) UK release date: 30 April 2012

Although a dauntingly prolific artist, Sam Shackleton has thus far eschewed conventional release arrangements. Numerous EPs might have been expected to lead to the release of an album but this actually transpired to be a mix CD for Fabric consisting entirely of his own work. However, his excellent collaboration with Pinch last year suggested a burgeoning interest in coherent long form projects. This cleverly compiled set released on his own Woe To The Septic Heart label continues this trend in a typically imaginative, mischievous and rebellious manner.

In this age of virtual distribution, it’s refreshing to find a product so lovingly and carefully prepared. This is an object of considerable beauty, three slabs of vinyl and an accompanying CD album housed within a box and joined together with manically inventive and exciting artwork from Zeke Clough. Released as a surprise, highly limited edition package (although also available as a download), this is a fine example of how quality music and product design can serve to generate their own buzz.

The Drawbar Organ is a collection of three EPs containing music all built around the Drawbar Organ sound. Whilst there is a strong sense of continuity with Shackleton’s previous work here, the sound itself enables the creation of some uniquely unsettling moods. The thick textures and full harmony provided by the instrument actually mesh very well with Shackleton’s signature minimalism and paralysis. Shackleton enhances his tense and nervy aesthetic here with compelling results. This is some of his most sweaty and enclosed music, created with broad strokes and deftly juxtaposing his skeletal percussion backdrops with unrestrained gasps, sighs and expressive outbursts from the organ itself, without sacrificing any of his trademark restraint. The sustained eerieness of Touched or the patiently unfolding menace of Test Tubes are brilliant summations of Shackleton’s particular brand of mood music.

Yet whilst these EPs introduce a new sound into Shackleton’s established palette, they do little to really push him outside his comfort zone. Music For The Quiet Hour, an uninterrupted hour of music divided into five parts, is something else entirely – a major artistic statement that consistently dazzles and surprises. If Shackleton might have in the past been loosely connected with dubstep or bass music, …The Quiet Hour transcends these spurious genre associations through its meticulous craftsmanship and through its textural and sonic variety.

Whilst the occasional dominance of bass and the repeated melodica motif of Part 3 suggests a continued kinship with dub tropes, this is often closer in spirit to industrial sounds or musique concrete. The percussion often sounds purposefully thin and trebly, whilst all five parts seem to float on a dependable bed of white noise and pitchless intrusions. It makes for a remarkable and nuanced headphone listen, even if Shackleton refuses to shy away from harsh or abrasive sound choices. It’s a thoroughly immersive experience that, despite its uninterrupted duration, demands to be experienced as a whole. A cursory listen to any fragment or snapshot would feel incomplete.

The first and fifth parts serve as mood-setting prologue and concluding epilogue respectively, drawing the listener into Shackleton’s weird world. Part two incorporates intriguing cross rhythms and rhythmic modulations perhaps drawn from Shackleton’s fascination with a range of African music along with a range of disorientating, head spinning vocal samples that collide with each other in a curious planned disorder. Whilst it has some of Shackleton’s Steve Reich-inspired relentlessness at times, it is also purposefully disruptive and unpredictable, occasionally lulling the listener into a false sense of security.

It also re-introduces Vengeance Tenfold, Shackleton’s vocal collaborator here. With the words ‘music is the weapon of the future’, he ushers in a long, mostly spoken apocalyptic quasi-poem. At first glance, this speaking voice feels curiously monotonous, but the occasional cadences and quirks of phrasing blend perfectly with Shackleton’s playful sonic refractions. In part three, it is the vocal lines that provide much of the music’s impetus and forward motion, to such an extent that Shackleton at one point strips away the beats to brilliant effect.

The longer movements of Quiet Hour blend insistent rhythms and percussive inventiveness with long passages of distorted, sometimes uncomfortable ambience. This feels like the electronic producer’s equivalent of a major, orchestrated composition, with Shackleton paying as close attention to sound, texture and dynamics. Ideas are sometimes repeated or restated, but more often this is a music of impressive contrasts and juxtapositions. It’s a brilliant exploration of the inevitable interaction between sound, the passing of time and the active process of listening.

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Shackleton – The Drawbar Organ / Music For The Quiet Hour